The writers of the books which eventually made up the New Testament take the Old Testament to be the Word of God and a constitutive part of the tradition of Christianity itself. In Acts 4:25, for example, the Holy Spirit is said to have spoken through the mouth of David. The foretelling of the life, death and resurrection of Christ in the Old Testament is a constant theme running through the New. Micah 5:2, for instance, speaks of the birth at Bethlehem; Hosea 11:1 of the coming from (after a flight into) Egypt of the Son of God (cf. Matt. 2:15); Psalm 41:9 of the betrayal. In both the Gospel and the Epistles Old Testament authors speak as authorities: 'David said...' (Mark 12:36); 'Moses said.'; 'Moses wrote.' (Mark 7:10; 12:19); 'Isaiah prophesied.'; 'Isaiah cried.'; 'Isaiah says.' (Mark 7:6; Rom. 9:27; 10:20). As well as this direct citation, we find a weaving of words and phrases and images and echoes from the Old Testament into the very texture of the New Testament's language. 1 Peter 2:1-10 and Acts 7, where Stephen makes his speech, are particularly rich examples. In these ways the Old Testament forms in part the very stuff of which the New Testament is made.
All this is perhaps to be expected in authors whose upbringing and tradition had thus provided them with an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament texts. It is much the same phenomenon as is to be found in the work of certain medieval Christian authors who are so familiar with Scripture that they can scarcely frame a sentence which is not full of it, such as St Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century. But it also reflects a number of conscious or semi-conscious assumptions about the Old Testament text and its authority, which carry over with some modifications into the Christian tradition.
The first is the dual assumption that the text is divinely inspired and at the same time the work of men of God who are worthy of respect in their own right. The Jewish apologist, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE-c.50 CE) wrote a
Life of Moses in which that point is strongly made (II.11). The second follows from the first. Even in Jewish exegesis of the Old Testament, and certainly in early and medieval Christian exegesis, every word, phrase or passage is regarded as capable of being used as proof of a point in its own right, and as available for comparison with any other without regard to its context.
This extreme respect for and attentiveness to the text extended as fully to translations into the Greek (in the case of the Septuagint) and into the Latin as to the text in the original language or its composition. Yet there is talk as early as Jerome of the Hebraica veritas, the 'truth' of the Hebrew text, and during the Middle Ages a few scholars made a special effort to understand and use the Old Testament through the Hebrew. Andrew of St Victor in Paris in the mid-twelfth century talked to local Jews and asked their advice on the meaning of key words, as well as making use of Josephus and the help to be had in Jerome. Among his successors in the later Middle Ages and the Reformation was Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who produced a textbook on The Rudiments of Hebrew (1506) and an edition of the seven penitential Psalms in Hebrew with a Latin translation (1512), with a later work (1518) on Hebrews accents and spelling. He was one of the pioneers on the Hebrew side of the return 'to the sources' (ad fontes) of the Renaissance and Reformation. Where the scholars of Andrew of St Victor's day had been content on the whole to elucidate specific difficulties over words and thus to provide themselves with a deeper understanding of the sense of the Latin, their late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century successors were seeking to equip themselves to read the whole in the original language. It is of some significance here that, even among the reformers, the Latin of Jerome's Vulgate was slow to lose ground as a text to be weighed as minutely as the Hebrew or Greek and was used as a source for proof texts alongside them.
A number of features of the Old Testament proved to be especially useful to Christian writers from the New Testament period onwards. Jewish rabbis placed a strong emphasis on the Old Testament texts as a source of rules for right living, and the habit continued into Christianity. The New Testament reflects the concerns raised by the question whether or not Christians should continue to be subject to the Law; this issue, as we shall see, was especially painful to Paul, and the problem of what was to be done about circumcision of new converts remained a pressing problem for some time. The general dilemma was resolved in roughly these terms: the Law is God-given and therefore good; Christians should still be subject to its moral principles; but they are not to be bound to detailed observation of its ceremonial aspects, which they should read allegorically and not as literally binding upon them. This allegorical approach is apparent in the First Epistle of Clement, thought to have been bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. He gives Old Testament examples of good and bad behaviour in individuals who are seen as 'types'.
Various Old Testament rules for right living are taken up in the New Testament, some to be adopted for Christians, and others seen in a new light.
In a discussion on helping the poor in 2 Corinthians 8:15 there is reference to Exodus 16:18, with approval of the precedent it sets. Jesus himself used an Old Testament reference to show the Pharisees their error when his disciples picked ears of corn on the Sabbath; he reminded them that when he and his men were hungry, David had gone into the Temple and eaten the very bread of the offering (Mark 2:23-8; 1 Sam. 21:1-6). The principle was thus established of finding in the Old Testament itself a warrant for a new Christian freedom. The problems raised for Christians as to whether they were free to eat unclean foods, or foods sacrificed to idols, were in part resolved by the declaration in Psalm 24:1 that all things belong to God (cf 1 Cor. 10:26). The shift in emphasis could go either way. In the discussion of the laws of marriage and divorce in Mark 10:2-12, for example, Jesus points to the inner meaning of the Mosaic principles and advocates a stricter practice than the Law itself. But in the debate on the admission of the Gentiles, the Christian community decided against circumcision and the requirement of obedience to the Judaic Law.
A second important area of borrowing and adjustment from Old Testament to New is eschatology. New Testament writers generally believed themselves to be living in the Last Time. In the very early Didache we hear the cry, 'Come Lord' with imminent expectation of Christ's return. Here the Old Testament prophecies, to which we shall return, had a direct reference to the coming of the messiah. But even in the Second Epistle of Peter there is a sign of a change of emphasis. The author encourages those who are beginning to complain at the delay to take a long-term view. A day is as a thousand years in God's sight (Ps. 90:4). The second coming may be not yet, but still it is sure. With this new view came the possibility of using the Old Testament's descriptions of a world at peace and flourishing as glimpses of the perfection to come. Irenaeus in the second century and Origen a generation or so later were influential here.
But by far the most important theme of the New Testament's borrowing from the Old is the evidence that the Old Testament Law and Prophets foretold the birth, life and death of Christ and that they are fulfilled in him. Jesus himself underlined the point when he read in the synagogue at Nazareth from Isaiah 61:1 ff, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...' (Luke 4:18ff). It was above all from the common consent of the Christian community on this point from the first that there arose the pattern of interpretation of the Old by the New which came to be most characteristic of Christian exegesis from the first centuries to the Reformation and beyond: the use of figurative readings.
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